The story evolves with a series of reminiscences, like a REM stream, in time transitions.
The novel opens with Professor Srinivasan’s letter to Sudhakaran, the protagonist, referring to his unfinished thesis among his old books. The professor invites him to his home in Varanasi. Sudharkaran, in his sixties, and recovering from a prostrate procedure, decides to take the professor by surprise. He realises on arrival that the professor has recently passed away.
The story evolves with a series of reminiscences, like a REM stream, in time transitions. The narration involves the third, first, and second person. In the train to Varanasi, Sudhakaran fishes out the book Kashi: The Eternal City by Sumita Nagpal, in which he is also acknowledged. By the time Sudhakaran finishes the book, he has traversed his life, his women, seen the demise of his well-wishers, moved through Varanasi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Paris, and Madras. He sees no need to complete his thesis — ‘about the possibilities of Caliban’ as once suggested by his professor for a scholarship at the university — and lets it go into the Ganga. He does the professor’s last rites as also his own ‘Atma Pindom’ (One’s own funeral rites in anticipation of death). At the Dashashwamedh Ghat, Sumita, now an elderly woman, merely passes him by, not even recognising him.
The novel has many leading ladies for Sudhakaran (including a foreigner by whom he begets a child). They are carnal sins burning in fires of lust and desire, dominating him, and initiating infidelity and sex. Sudhakaran is an engine fleeing from them — they are attached to him like loosely shunted bogies… mainly, Sumita (“What sin is there in love?”), Shanta (“Suck this, my baby, suck this”), Soudamini (“The bunch of flowers should only be gently felt, fondled”) and Gita (“What kind of kiss is that? Here, let me teach you”).They lead to Madelyn, the foreigner. MT’s women, as usual, reveal their propensity for adultery and untamed sex.
Varanasi is not merely the city of dharma, moksha, and lust, but is also where death doesn’t frighten one.
The novel is an experiment. There is no intricate plot, and it does not need one. MT’s insights into Shakespeare and English literature are evident. N. Gopalakrishnan’s transcreational effort has been graced with MT’s own reading and approval. The translator has succeeded in bringing forth the soul of the work and the sensuous quality of MT’s poetic visuals.
The novel ends with faith healing by the perennial Ganga. The curtains come down with a silent note on the transience of human love and the loneliness of a pilgrim’s soul etched in ‘Atma Pindom’ where all memory of love, life, and turbulence fade away like a lit lamp overturning into the darkness of the river.
Varanasi; M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Trs N. Gopalakrishnan, Orient Black Swan, price not stated.